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DTN Ag Policy Blog: Facing Border and Migrant Politics, Some Lawmakers Push Ag Immigration Reform

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Farm workers protesting at the U.S. Capitol a decade ago calling for immigration reform that eventually failed. House lawmakers are now trying to convince Senate colleagues to pass a bill comparable to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the House last year. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

A group of Republican House members on Tuesday called on their Senate colleagues to pass a bipartisan farm labor bill that calls for overhauling the H-2A program.

The lawmakers came armed with a new study from Texas A&M highlighting new data on the importance of stabilizing the agricultural workforce as one means to help deal with inflation and prices. The A&M study "shows that ensuring farmers have a stable, secure, reliable, and legal workforce is crucial to keeping America's grocery shelves stocked, combating inflation, and lowering food prices (including milk, eggs, meat, and produce) for all domestic consumers," the study states.

More migrant and H-2A workers would lower food inflation. More migrant and H-2A workers are associated with higher average wages, as well as lower unemployment. Also, denying petitions for nationalization is associated with larger consumer prices and higher inflation. Approving more petitions for naturalization is associated with lower inflation, the study states.

"Overall, the findings in this study tended to support the conclusion that policies on non-citizen admissions and immigration have a profound association with the economy," said Sean Maddan, the A&M professor who led the study. "The relationships denoted above are strong, statistically significant relationships, and definitely warrant further research and consideration."

The GOP lawmakers spearheading the press conference at the Capitol were Reps. Dan Newhouse of Washington, Jim Baird of Indiana, Doug LaMalfa of California and Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Those congressmen were pushing support for Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who have taken up the task the Senate to get a bill passed comparable to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that passed the House on a 247-174 vote in March 2021.

The press conference at the Capitol also was pegged to Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador's visit to Washington.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would overhaul the H-2A visa program for farm workers, providing dairy farmers and other producers the opportunity to bring in workers for three-year visas, assuring year-round labor needs are met. Initially, there would be up to 20,000 initial year-round visas for the first three years -- with capacity to increase the visa volumes if the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture consider it necessary.

The bill also would legalize hundreds of thousands of farm workers who are working in the country now illegally. These workers would qualify for five-year renewable visas, including options for permanent legal status. It would also establish a national E-Verify system for all agricultural employers.

The House press conference on Tuesday also included quotes and support from the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, the International Fresh Produce Association, the New York Farm Bureau and the Utah Farm Bureau, and the American Business Immigration Coalition Action. Those groups talked about the labor challenges they face.

"It is paramount that we have an agricultural guestworker system that addresses both long- and short-term farm labor needs in this country," said David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau. "We look forward to a Senate bill that would modernize the federal H-2A program to have a continuous, legal workforce for all sectors of agriculture. This includes opening the system to year-round employees that are needed on farms that milk cows and care for livestock. We must all come together to fix a longtime problem that will support our farms and the American people. Food security is national security."

All of this focus on agricultural labor, H-2A and overhauling immigration to bring in more labor may seem like a practical solution, but it also goes against all of the other election-year comments coming out of the U.S. Senate right now.

Rather than deal with ag labor, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, on Wednesday dropped a bill, "Solving the Border Crisis Act." Their bill would resume building a wall and tightening enforcement at the border with Mexico, reinstate the pandemic emergency "Title 42" rule, and make "remain in Mexico" a permanent program.

"The Biden administration's dismantling of the effective immigration system it inherited has created a full-blown disaster at the southern border. The past few months of illegal migrant encounters have broken every record in the book, and there is no end in sight unless we secure our border with strong immigration policies," Risch said. "Using several of the findings of my recent migration report, I'm proud to introduce the Solving the Border Crisis Act to prevent this national security and public health disaster from getting any worse."

On Thursday, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she was headed to visit the Texas-Mexico border "amidst unrelenting illegal immigration crisis." Ernst will tour the Rio Grande Valley with Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

"Month after month we continue to see complete chaos at the Southern border under this administration," Ernst said. "With our Border Patrol agents more overwhelmed than ever, we need serious action to restore law and order at the border. I'm looking forward to meeting with the men and women on the frontlines of this crisis and bringing back potential solutions to my colleagues in the Senate."

These efforts to legalize farm workers and modify H-2A go back more than a decade -- practically at least two decades. The odds of the U.S. Senate taking up an immigration reform bill for agriculture in the last six months before a mid-term election are not good.

A link to the Texas A&M study: https://www.tamiu.edu/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton